The Boys in Green's Euro 2012 start could not have been worse; poor defensive play and utter ruin in the midfield area caused a shocking opening to Group C
That your pre-match optimism must stretch to include craving a free-kick close to goal is a reminder, and an acknowledgement, of the limitations of your team. That you accept your team will give up 60 per cent of the ball and 66 per cent of the territory, but yet you still hope, betrays cognitive dissonance on a scale that only an Ireland supporter would understand.
That Ireland played in this manner before and earned draws and wins is what keeps a sliver of light shimmering in the darkest recesses of your consciousness. That light was promptly extinguished by Croatia in Poznan on Sunday night. And Ireland had more than a hand in their own ruin.
A system of play designed to usually stymie the talent in the opposition ranks only served to make the heart race, not in exhilaration, but in fear, dread, apprehension. To try and keep a check on the likes of Luka Modric and Darijo Srna is one thing. To fail to exercise due care in defensive work is quite another.
In the pre-tournament nightmares of the 30,000 fans who made the trip to Poland, this harsh brush-up on the rigours of tournament football would have been filed under 'worst case scenario'. Ireland deserved nothing from this game despite the unanswered baying for what probably was a second-half penalty. If that had been given and converted - not inevitable - Giovanni Trapattoni's team would still have had to conjure another strike from somewhere.
|MATCH FACTS | Ireland 1-3 Croatia
It is typical of Ireland to invite teams deep inside their own territory; it is part of the plan. But the back-pedalling last night, the retreat, resembled a backward march into a trench of inferiority.
Modric probed and prodded and barely misplaced a pass all night. Srna, a galloping steed, owned that right flank as Ivan Rakitic added more presence in an already-overrun Ireland midfield. Ivan Perisic came off John O'Shea and took shots off his right foot at will. Mario Mandzukic, a terror in the air, scored twice with his head.
Wholly, there was something amiss from this Irish performance. Much is made of Ireland's mental strength, that team spirit, that indefatigable constitution. There was nothing of the sort on the night. There was close to an hour of being outplayed and a gradual deflation thereafter.
Trapattoni's attempts to change the game fell short too. Loyal to his 'normal' team, so predictable now that he can actually name a team numbered 1-11 at a championship finals, his substitutions merely demonstrated that he is unable to supplement his starting ranks with anything approaching competence.
There was precious little in this Irish performance to take heart from, in truth, aside from a regulation shift by Richard Dunne and a well-taken Sean St Ledger header off a good Aiden McGeady delivery. There was vulnerability in the Croatia backline but it could not be exploited. No meaningful possession could be had behind Slaven Bilic's midfield; that soft core exempt from bona fide examination.
That Croatia's good players were permitted to play so well is regrettable. When their manager said before the game that Ireland played 'basic' football and that he did not expect any surprises he was admonished for being insulting. It was nothing of the sort. It was recognition, instead, that he knew what was coming and wrote his script accordingly.
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Ireland were stodgily redoubtable in their qualification campaign and got lucky in having to play Estonia for a place here. The problem with squeaking through past inferior opposition is that the gradient is steep. It is a cliff face.
The Hungary warning signs were ignored. Good to get through 90 minutes without injury, we were assured. That should have been a wake-up call. Ireland were not good enough to stop Hungary from playing in a non-competitive fixture. Croatia gorged themselves.
An understatement would be to say that sterner tests await. Ireland are capable of much more and need to prove it.